Once upon a time, long, long ago, the Detroit Lions were a team devoid of talent.
Be it talent on the field, the sidelines, or the front office, there was not much to be excited about as a Lions fan way back then.
Turns out that was actually a little over two years ago. Doesn't it seem like much longer?
Moreover, doesn't it seem like it would take a team with no talent, no leadership, no identity and no answers would take more than two-and-a-half offseasons to acquire all of the above?
The Lions have done just that, and therefore, they find themselves now with an uncharacteristic ability to pick and choose their roster from talented football players.
That means good news for the Lions and their fans, and bad news for the marginally talented players who would have been shoo-ins on the Lions' 2008 roster.
Certainly, there are a number of players who would have been starters a few years ago who will be fighting for their jobs this year. And I'm not talking about players like Aaron Brown or Bryant Johnson, who will need small miracles to even make the 53-man roster.
I'm talking about players who are likely to play a big role with the 2011 Lions, but may or may not next year based on their performance.
Life sure is tough for Millen-era draft picks post-Millen.
Gosder Cherilus is one of only three Millen first-round draft picks still hanging around the Detroit Lions organization, and Cherilus is only entering his fourth year. Calvin Johnson (2007) has the benefit of being a supernaturally gifted athlete, and Jeff Backus (2001) has already proven his staying power.
Cherilus? He has certainly exhibited some improvement in the last three years, but he has also shown an inability to stay healthy. He also has had the benefit of not having any better players around him, waiting to take his position.
The Lions' braintrust seems to have taken the stance that the team's offensive line is "okay for now." But most of the starters on that line are either aging (Backus, Dominic Raiola), consistently injured (Stephen Peterman, Cherilus) or in their last/next-to-last contract year (Backus, Cherilus).
In other words, almost all of the line is going to need an upgrade within the next two years.
Cherilus' ability to stay healthy, perform, and continue to grow into his role next season will determine whether he is part of the solution or part of the Millen purge.
Admittedly, in the intro, I said I would be focusing on major impact players.
Derrick Williams hardly fits this profile. However, I do expect him to be the Lions' fourth receiver in 2011 (for lack of options), and I expect it to be his very last chance to grow and produce something worth keeping around.
When Williams was drafted, he was considered primarily a kick returner with potential to grow as a wide receiver.
The Lions had just about eliminated any notion of Williams' value as a kick returner by the end of his rookie season. The arrival of Stefan Logan finished it off.
That allowed Williams to focus on his work as the Lions' third receiver, a job he shared in incompetence with Bryant Johnson. Now Titus Young is all but a lock to be the Lions' third receiver.
I would expect Williams to earn a last hurrah as the Lions' fourth receiver, because he is younger than Johnson and likely has more upside than any of the leftover practice squad guys. Not only that, but I'm sure the Lions brass would like to avoid busting on a third-round pick if they can help it.
The only question is, will they be able to help it?
I like DeAndre Levy, and I fully expect this to be a "make" year for him.
Because if I'm wrong, the Lions will be in a great deal of trouble.
Though there is plenty of time for free agency and roster moves, the Lions' current linebacker corps does not exactly inspire confidence. Levy is the bright spot there, and he does indeed make the defense better around him.
He just needs to stay healthy and continue to develop. Though Levy is unusually savvy when it comes to reading offenses and communicating, he's not a game-changing playmaker on his own merit. With some added bulk to help him shed blockers, he could be.
He's a good linebacker one way or another, it just remains to be seen if he will be a long-term solution at middle linebacker.
This is an especially important season for Jeff Backus beyond just his future with the Lions.
And don't fool yourself into thinking there's no way he has a future with the Lions. He has been with the franchise for a decade, and it's not inconceivable that he re-signs in free agency.
At the very least, it's not inconceivable that he wants to stay. Whether or not the Lions want to keep him is another story, and 2011 will pretty much determine the ending of that story.
Backus is in his mid-30s, and it's hard telling how much he has in the tank. The last two years have been two of the best in his career, but he can't keep trending up for long, and people have been calling for his replacement since shortly after he was drafted.
Will 2011 be the beginning of Backus' decline, or a continuation of his glory years?
The answer to that will also lead us to whether Backus' 2012 is spent in Detroit or elsewhere.
The way Lions fans act with Louis Delmas is a perfect example of how you can tell the team is turning the corner.
Delmas has been very good for the Lions. He has been arguably the best player in Detroit's secondary over the last two years.
And it's still not enough. The team and its fans are demanding more from him.
This is not a bad thing. It indicates that the franchise is no longer settling for just "good enough." It's also not a bad thing because the physically gifted Delmas is capable of delivering on those demands.
See, everybody recognizes Delmas' talent, and as such, it's easy to see that he's nowhere near his potential with his current level of play. For the last couple of years, he has had excuses.
He's a rookie.
He's battling a lingering injury.
He has no defensive support.
Well, the time for those excuses is over. Delmas has superstar potential, he knows his system, and he has had plenty of time to heal up.
This is the season we should get to see whether Delmas is going to be the star safety he was projected to be, or just simply good enough.
When healthy, the big-bodied Stephen Peterman is by far the best run blocker in Detroit.
That said, Peterman has been battling a foot injury for two years, and it's tough to say whether this year will be any different.
The Lions' front office gave him a vote of confidence by not displacing him with any draft picks, but he can't expect the same if he puts up another lackluster year.
Peterman is only 29, so he should be in the prime of his career. If he is, he gives the Lions offensive line a big boost.
If he's not, you can bet he'll be watching the 2012 NFL Draft with crossed fingers.
What exactly are the expectations for Tony Scheffler in 2011?
And consequently, what exactly would indicate a "make" season or a "break" season?
Scheffler is harshly judged because of the value given up to obtain him. Ernie Sims was a defensive icon in Detroit, and his departure from the team has created a void at weakside linebacker that has yet to be filled even now.
Scheffler, meanwhile, is providing quality depth behind Brandon Pettigrew.
This is fine, of course. Jim Schwartz runs a lot of 2TE packages, and for that he certainly wants two starting-quality tight ends.
But will he be deemed valuable enough to justify the trade? What will his role be on the team?
Presumably, his pass-catching role will decrease now that the Lions have an additional pair of hands to feed in Titus Young. But Scheffler is more of a pass-catching tight end, which puts us at an impasse.
Ultimately, 2011 is Scheffler's time to carve out a role for himself in the Lions' offense. If he doesn't, he'll quickly find that his role doesn't exist.
I debated this one for a while.
If Matthew Stafford performed poorly (or worse, not at all) in 2011, would the Lions give up on him? Would the fans? Would that be the end of the Matthew Stafford Experiment in Detroit?
In a word, no.
In a short answer, they might start thinking about it.
Everybody really wants to like Stafford. Even on the national stage, there are commentators willing to put Stafford on their "breakout player" watch lists. Many still consider him better than Sam Bradford or Mark Sanchez, who have actually played and led their teams to notable success.
Given the circumstances, Stafford has gotten a whole lot of benefit of the doubt.
And for patience like that, those people who have stood behind him will be expecting a payoff. Without one this season, the tide of public opinion, both in and out of Detroit, will begin to turn on him.
That would certainly be unfortunate, but there are already people trying to sell him off down the river, even after only two years. And the kid is still younger than a handful of 2011 draftees.
But with a third year that doesn't look any better than his first two? He may well enter his fourth year on a very short leash.
Either way, Stafford would be much better off if he just avoided the issue by having the breakout year many have predicted for him.
So would the Lions, and for years to come, at that.